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Trade and Industry

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 19 October 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Post Office

The Royal Mail’s operational performance is just one of the issues that Ministers and officials discuss regularly with the company.

May I refer the Secretary of State to the experience of my constituent, Mr. Alan Sinclair, who received a medium-sized package through the post that had been tampered with and opened, it being perfectly obvious that it was not the result of machine damage? The Post Office did not want to know, Postwatch did not want to know, and the Department of Trade and Industry did not want to know. Everyone has told him to take a running jump. What can the Secretary of State say to my constituent about his very serious complaint about opened and tampered-with mail?

I agree that it is a serious matter. The primary responsibility is of course with the Royal Mail, but if the hon. Gentleman would care to let me have the details, I will look into it. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that well over 99 per cent. of mail is successfully delivered and that the Royal Mail overall does a good job.

That is what the Post Office says, but most hon. Members would agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). I welcome the fact that the Minister will look into this. When he does so, will he reconsider the requirement that when sending a gift overseas one has to declare precisely what it is? The use of a bar code instead would at least disguise the nature of the contents from the casual thief. The problem is that declaring what one is sending is an open invitation for the package not to be delivered, which is what is happening.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. From time to time, things will go wrong and packages will not be delivered, or damaged or interfered with, but the vast majority of parcels and letters are delivered efficiently by the Royal Mail. If there are problems, we will look into them, but it is not right to give the impression that this problem is widespread, because that is not true.

I would say that the problem is far more widespread than the right hon. Gentleman suggests. In response to a recent survey, I received more than 1,000 complaints, an awful lot of which were about not only delivery times but lost and stolen mail. What is the Minister going to do to deal with the Royal Mail, which is not delivering for local people?

As I said to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, if the hon. Lady has specific complaints that she would like the Royal Mail to look into, I would be happy to ensure that it does so. Despite the fact that there will be problems from time to time, overall the Royal Mail does a good job in delivering mail.

Is the Secretary of State aware that each week 1,100 car tax discs go missing in the post, as well as many more driving licences, causing great stress and anxiety to those who are waiting for those documents? Does he agree that urgent discussions are needed between the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Post Office and his Department?

I am aware that tax discs and licences go missing. Much of the mail that goes missing is the result of criminals targeting mail vans and the like. We take that seriously, as does the Royal Mail. Hon. Members will be aware that some 3 million licences were obtained online as a result of changes made by the DVLA last year, which helps to make their delivery more secure. However, people have a choice, and they have every right to expect that if something is posted to them, they will get it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Royal Mail is becoming increasingly secretive about the facts and figures relating to lost and stolen mail, claiming commercial sensitivities? Is not a mail company’s performance on lost and stolen mail a legitimate piece of information for consumers? If he agrees, what action will he take to ensure that we have full disclosure not only from the Royal Mail but from all mail operators on that important piece of information?

I agree. This year, Postcomm imposed a fine on the Royal Mail of about £9 million because of its failure to meet its licence obligations; that is what the regulator is for.

As the Secretary of State said, the scale of this problem is shown by the size of the fine that Postcomm has imposed. Will he also consider whether the problems could partly be addressed by allowing sub-post offices to work with carriers other than the Royal Mail? Does he agree that such competition would force the Royal Mail to do more to tackle these failings, have the added advantage of increasing consumer choice, and bring desperately needed new business to the post office network?

As I have said in the past few weeks, we are ascertaining how we can help post offices expand their business, and I shall make a statement to the House in a few weeks. However, it is important that we do everything that we can to help those businesses develop in a manner that is consistent with the Government’s overall objectives for Royal Mail.

Oil Workers (Annual Leave)

2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that offshore oil workers receive their statutory annual leave entitlement. (95029)

In 1998, the Government introduced for the first time an entitlement to four weeks’ paid annual leave through the working time regulations, which came into force on 1 October this year.

We amended the regulations on 1 October 2006. That put beyond doubt the fact that the working time regulations apply to offshore workers on the UK part of the continental shelf. As my hon. Friend knows, that followed a dispute between employee representatives and employers over the jurisdiction of the original regulations.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. The recent amendment to the working time regulations is welcome and, as he says, puts beyond doubt the fact that they apply to all employees. However, Amicus has brought it to my attention that some offshore employers still try to prevent their employees from receiving full annual leave entitlement. They claim that onshore leave, which is effectively rest time, should be regarded as annual leave. That is as if an onshore employer claimed that weekends and bank holidays constituted annual leave. That is wrong and should be resisted. Will my hon. Friend take steps to ensure that offshore workers receive their full annual leave entitlement?

I do not disagree with the principle that my hon. Friend outlines of entitlement to appropriate annual leave. Indeed, we have just concluded consultation on ensuring that workers are entitled to their eight days of bank holidays as well as the four weeks for which we legislated in 1998. I know that some discussions are continuing between unions and the oil companies. We clarified the jurisdictional dispute that held up resolution to the disagreements and we hope that, as a result of doing that on 1 October, sensible discussions can take place between employee representatives, the oil companies and other companies that work offshore, so that they can arrive at satisfactory agreements for their staff.

I draw the House’s attention to my entries on the oil and gas industry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Under-Secretary said that the Government have now clarified the jurisdiction, but both sides would welcome clarification of the way in which they envisage the directive applying offshore. What assurance can the Department give about the implications of the Jaeger judgment and whether it would apply to the situation?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The SiMAP/Jaeger European Court of Justice rulings have an impact on many businesses and services in the United Kingdom. We are examining them carefully to ascertain whether they apply in the case that we are considering. In November, we expect an outstanding tribunal decision, which should provide additional clarity. We do not believe that SiMAP or Jaeger applies to the North sea as matters stand, but we are keen to see the results of the judgment as well as those of the further discussions in Europe about the operation of the two European Court of Justice judgments on working time in the UK.

The clarification of jurisdiction is welcome. However, my discussions with contractors in the summer show that they simply want the issue sorted out. They would like to know exactly how the regulations will work in practice and what they mean for their employees. In some cases, they would welcome the Government defining exactly what the regulations mean in practice. I appreciate that that is not necessarily the view of all the operators and others, but some were reaching it in the summer because of their frustration about the length of time that the issue is taking.

My hon. Friend ably describes the frustration of many involved in the industry about the inability to determine the nature of the agreement. We passed the amendment to the regulations on 1 October to clarify the jurisdictional difficulties that prevented proper negotiations. We do not believe that we have a role in negotiating what the leave arrangements should be but we felt that we had a role in clarifying the leave entitlements under law. Although it is early days yet, and we await the November employment tribunal judgment, we hope that, once it is out of the way, the employers and employee organisations can reach agreements that are satisfactory to both. We will not intervene in those negotiations but we are watching them carefully.

Personal Debt

Although most people use credit productively, some end up with huge problems. The Department is most concerned to help such people, and there is much that we are doing.

We are giving grants totalling £45 million over the two years until April 2008 for advice agencies to hire and train 450 new debt advisers, who will help more than 100,000 of those with the highest levels of personal debt. That is part of a package to combat financial exclusion under the Treasury’s £120 million financial inclusion fund.

We are also giving more than £24 million to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland to help support citizens advice bureaux, which, among other things, provide help and advice to those in debt.

We have recently funded loan shark pilots in Birmingham and Glasgow with a grant of £835,000 this year. We will assess the pilots, which have helped combat illegal activities.

We have given another grant of £l million this year to National Debtline, which will help tens of thousands of the indebted. We are doing as much as we can to try to help those with the highest levels of debt.

Let me say without qualification that the interest and initiatives of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury in this respect are welcome. Given that there is now a record £1.3 trillion of personal debt in this country, however, will the Minister ensure that his Department conducts a review of credit card charges? Two years ago, both the Trade and Industry Select Committee and the Treasury Select Committee, as well as the DTI, said that although good steps had been taken, much more needed to be done to protect people from being ripped off by small print that they do not understand or by charges that they have not been alerted to.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very fair comments. I will write to him on this matter, because I have taken up this issue with representatives of the industry and I am having discussions with them now. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman and the House with further information, following the conclusion of those discussions.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the voucher company Farepak, which is based in my constituency, collapsed this week, robbing thousands of people on low incomes of their Christmas savings. My constituents use Farepak to avoid falling into debt, and many have lost hundreds of pounds. As one Swindon mum said:

“For so many people, Farepak has been a lifeline because it means we don’t have to get into debt at Christmas, so we want to know why we might all get into debt now, trying to make this Christmas like any other.”

Does the Minister agree that this stinks, especially as Farepak made a £1.2 million profit 18 months ago? Will he meet the administrator, and get the Insolvency Service to look into the matter thoroughly and take action against the directors if needed?

Like my hon. Friend, I understand why those people are hurt, angry and frightened about being fleeced and so badly let down. I have already discussed a way forward with the administrator earlier today. Furthermore, this morning my officials and I contacted the British Retail Consortium, which represents the retail sector. It has no legal obligations, but this is a very successful sector, and the overwhelming majority of the BRC members are socially responsible employers and companies. Its representatives immediately agreed to meet me this weekend at the DTI, with the administrator, to see what the industry can do. They cannot take on the legal obligations of this shocking company, but they will see what they can do in the lead-up to Christmas as a good-will gesture to help the most needy people who have lost out completely.

I have also asked the administrator to report as soon as he can, under the terms of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, on the fitness of the directors, on how they have run the company, and on the extent of their responsibility for any failure by the company to supply goods or services that have been paid for in full or in part. I have also asked my officials this morning to take full advice from the Insolvency Service. I have been in touch with the Hamper Industry Trade Association, and I shall be meeting its representatives in a few days’ time. I shall also be meeting the executive director of the Office of Fair Trading, Mr. John Fingleton, to discuss how we can take this issue forward to avoid such failures again.

The Minister will be aware that a principal cause of personal debt is gambling, including, increasingly, online gambling. Will he therefore comment on recent press reports that the Government are seeking to turn this country into a world leader in the online gambling industry, to the extent of relaxing the regulatory and fiscal regimes? Does he really believe that this country should aspire to become a world leader in an activity that consigns so many of its citizens to misery?

Despite my background as a politician, I am not much of a gambler myself. The industry employs tens of thousands of people in this country, and is well regulated. I recognise, however, that some individuals have gambling problems, and that the consequences for them and their families are indeed great. We will certainly keep a close eye on the industry, as the hon. Gentleman requests, to ensure that it not only operates effectively but provides services to give support and assistance to those who have gambling problems.

To return to credit card debt, although I welcome the activities that the Minister has outlined as attempts to give people who are already in difficulty guidance to get out of it, does he agree that the way the different credit cards are advertised—often in a misleading manner—makes it much harder for consumers who are inexperienced in relation to the existing 30,000 credit cards to make rational decisions? They often get ripped off and end up paying high interest for borrowing small amounts of money. Will he outline his views on how that could be dealt with?

There is no answer to that.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) that I am in discussions with APACS—the UK payments association—as are my officials, about the best-practice guidelines. Then we can take the matter forward. Indeed, in only the last few days I met the vice-chair of Barclays bank, who is, on behalf of the industry, keen to work with the Government to bring forward such proposals.

Those guidelines will give security through an understanding across the industry of what best practice is and ensure that competition does not lead to overly complex and difficult situations for the consumer of those products. Therefore, I am quite confident that, along with the industry itself, the best-practice guidelines can be amended in such a way that, for example, the appropriate checks on a customer’s ability to pay and checks between the industries will lead to us not having credit limits that are difficult to meet due to their complexity for the consumer who wants to have a credit card limit increased, or indeed wants to have a credit card in the first place.

The debts of students and young people are especially concerning. Indeed, outstanding student loans are now at more than £19 billion. Given that, and the importance of data-sharing between lenders, why is the Student Loan Company not sharing its data? It is almost a year since Ministers promised us that they would resolve this issue. When can we expect action, not just yet another consultation paper?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the promise and I can say that, as consumer Minister, I am actively engaged with the issue, so watch this space. We want to resolve the issue in an effective way, as my predecessors said. That will be done.

What advice will my right hon. Friend give to the family sheltering under that green tree, who propose to get £21 billion in debt and do not have the money to finance it?

My hon. Friend alludes to the shadow Chancellor’s banana republic report on public expenditure cuts and massive tax incentives for the very rich in society. Indeed it is a recipe for economic disaster, but what do you expect? This is just another Tory leader with the same old Tory policies.

Olympic Games

4. What steps he is taking to ensure that businesses in the regions can take advantage of the commercial opportunities arising from the 2012 Olympic games. (95031)

Hosting the Olympics provides Britain and British businesses with a unique opportunity to showcase our products and services, and to exploit commercial opportunities in the short term to create a lasting legacy for British enterprise in the long term.

We are working with the regional development agencies and the devolved Administrations to ensure that we provide appropriate business support so that companies are fit to compete for games-related opportunities. We are ensuring that there is widespread access to, and up-to-date information about, procurement opportunities, and we are working with specific sectors, such as construction and information and communications technology, to ensure that we take maximum advantage of the commercial opportunities as they arise.

There is real interest in the Olympics, but there is a genuine need for the firms to get the information in a proper way and for the procurement processes to be open and transparent. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the contract packaging is right so that the smaller businesses can also get a chance to bid for some of this valuable work? That will enable my region to see some of the benefits from the 2012 games.

I agree with all of that. We are working with regional development agencies to establish a business opportunities network, and we have already started putting online some of the opportunities that exist. My hon. Friend makes valid points, and I will take them on board as we develop our networks and information vehicles.

May I remind the Minister that it would be advantageous to the regions, and Wales and Scotland, if Olympic events were held outside London? In that regard, will she pass on to her colleagues the message that Bala, my home town, has the best white-water canoeing in Europe, and that on Cardigan bay at Pwllheli, arguably, there is the best yachting in Britain?

I will certainly pass that on to my colleagues. When the Sydney games were held in 2000, Brisbane, for example, benefited hugely, not least because the presence of the British team alone added £6 million to its economy.

One of the best and easiest ways that companies in the north-east can benefit from the games is to host a training camp. Gateshead international stadium in my constituency is ready and waiting, offering world-class facilities. The transport links to the north-east are the best, and visitors will receive the warm hospitality of its friendly folk. Can the Minister say whether a timetable has been discussed yet?

I cannot say whether such a timetable has been established, but I will pass on the enthusiasm to have such a facility in my hon. Friend’s constituency to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The value of additional tourism and so on arising from the games has been estimated at some £610 million. What estimate has the Minister made of the proportion of that income that will be generated outside London? Can she assure me that my Province will get its fair share of the commercial opportunities, along with the rest of the United Kingdom?

We have not made an estimate of the extent to which the benefit will be spread across the whole of the United Kingdom, but we are determined to ensure that we do that. That will happen partly through the way that we distribute the various facilities that the games will require, which is a matter for the Olympic Delivery Authority, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Part of that is about ensuring that businesses are fit for purpose, which we have taken on board, and that proper information is provided to businesses so that they can take advantage of the games. The fact that so many hon. Members are rising on this question shows the enthusiasm across the United Kingdom for the hosting of the Olympics here in 2012.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the games represent a great opportunity for the manufacturing sector, particularly the steel industry? Has she had any discussions with the Corus management in particular on how it can take advantage of this great opportunity and play its part?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy has responsibility for the steel industry and will take that on board. In general, we have had discussions with the construction industry, and a construction commitment has been signed not only by construction companies but by all suppliers, such as architects and quantity surveyors, to ensure that we use the opportunity of the Olympics to improve our construction practices and showcase the best of British construction as we build facilities.

Tariffs (Far East)

5. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on tariffs on imports from the Far East. (95032)

Is it not disgraceful that we are no longer able to determine our own trade policy? Surely our future prosperity as a country is dependent on promoting our own freer trade policies with countries such as China, rather than being shackled by some inward-facing, backward-looking protection racket. Why does the Secretary of State think that our future prosperity is best decided by the unelected and unaccountable Peter Mandelson in Brussels, rather than by our Government making our own trade policies?

When the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) tells us that his party has changed, he should have a good listen to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The hon. Gentleman might want to have a word with Lady Thatcher, who in 1986 made a considerable contribution to the very matters about which he is complaining.

The European Union is responsible for trade, and as trade becomes increasingly global, it makes more and more sense to deal with such matters on a larger scale. The United Kingdom plays a very active role, because trade—and, in particular, keeping markets as open as possible and securing a good outcome to the current World Trade Organisation talks—is as important to us as it is to every other country.

Is it true that, as has been reported, the British Government have agreed to support protectionist higher tariffs on Asian footwear in return for Italian support for postponement of the working time directive? If it is not true, will the British Government be voting against those protectionist measures in the Council of Ministers?

The British Government have already voted against them. The vote took place about 10 days ago. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very busy these days, but if he takes a look at the record—I am sure that a record is kept of these things in Europe—he will see exactly how we voted.

On the subject of Peter Mandelson, and in the light of the collapse of the Doha trade round, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the enthusiasm of the EU Trade Commissioner for bilateral trade deals with countries in the far east and elsewhere?

There are two points. I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that nothing will happen to the WTO talks and the Doha round before the United States congressional elections in the next few weeks. After that—in our view and, I believe, in the view of all involved—it is essential for the American Government, the European Union and, indeed, all the other players to become seriously engaged. Without movement from all parties the talks will not succeed, and while the price of success is immense, there is a huge cost to be paid if the talks fail.

We are prepared to support regional or bilateral trade agreements, but they must be complementary to an overall settlement. Multilateral agreements are far better, and regional or bilateral agreements cannot be seen as a substitute for them, but to the extent that they are considered to be complementary, we certainly support them.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the EU’s share of world trade decreased and its deficit widened by 7 per cent. in the first quarter of this year. Surely these unfair, discriminatory tariffs will serve only to make the position worse. Is it not true that their only likely effect is people paying more for their shoes in the shops? Does the Secretary of State agree with Alisdair Gray of the British Retail Consortium that they will not save a single job in the EU? What representations is he making to his friend Peter Mandelson to end this situation?

As I said, discussions about tariffs on imported shoes took place throughout the summer, and the vote took place about two weeks ago. As I just told the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), the British Government’s position is on the record. However, I agree that we must aim to break down trade barriers. Protectionism is disastrous for trade and industry in the medium and the long term, and we should be ensuring that we can secure as much trade as possible. Europe will depend on it, and this country depends on it. Our approach has always been to take a very liberal view, and I hope that we shall have cross-party support for that.

Business Relocation

6. If he will make it a requirement for companies considering relocation overseas to consult the Department, regional development agencies and the local community. (95033)

We encourage companies to consult their employees before making relocation decisions. We also expect companies to work with their RDAs and local communities to help any employees who lose their jobs as a result of such decisions. However, we have no plans to make consultation a requirement.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but expectations and reality are not necessarily the same. Does she share my dismay at the way in which some absentee owners show contempt for a loyal, hard-working work force, uprooting them and moving them overseas? If she does, would she be kind enough to arrange a meeting with me to discuss the particular problem of a company that may be contemplating doing just that?

I am aware of the company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I am happy to meet him to discuss it. Many foreign companies invest in the UK. We have become the location of choice for many such companies, especially those that are trying to establish headquarters somewhere in Europe. Many choose the UK, and we should encourage that because it is good for British jobs and for the UK’s wealth.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the announcement today by MBDA? It is getting rid of 170 manufacturing jobs at Lostock in the constituency adjoining Chorley. Specialist skills in missile technology will not be able to be replicated in the future as and when we need a new missile. These companies such as MBDA come round MPs demanding support and loyalty, talking about investment in the UK and supporting British workers, yet today we have the sad announcement that 170 people will lose their jobs. It is not good enough. What can the Government do?

Again, I share the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed on behalf of his constituents and those who work for the company. I am happy to meet him to discuss the particulars of the situation that he faces. In the end, companies take commercial decisions. What we need to do, and are doing in the Companies Bill that is currently before the House, is to ensure that we have the conditions in the UK to encourage sustainable investment that will bring jobs to the UK and add wealth to the economy.

I am astonished that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) thinks that by asking a company to talk to quangos in the UK he is going to stop it from quitting the country. I simply do not know what planet he is on.

Is it not the case that Britain has slipped down the competitiveness league, and that we have to address that problem, which is yet another reason why the tax reform commission that we announced today is so important? In order to create inward investment instead of a flight of capital, will the Minister now announce policies to rebuild Britain’s brand image abroad in a simple and effective way through UK Trade and Investment and, indeed, through our own competitive merits, and put an end to the absurd practice of all our regional agencies costing a fortune by having competing offices in the likes of Shanghai?

I am puzzled by that contribution. I assume that the Opposition have now decided to abolish the regional development agencies as a contribution to finding £21 billion of cuts to fund their tax reductions. I take a much more optimistic, pro-British view of the way we are performing on inward investment. The most recent World Bank report “Doing business in 2007” says that the UK is the best country in the whole of Europe for inward investment. We are one of the top two EU member states on employment law, with Denmark higher. We are in the top two in Europe in terms of protection for investors. We are joint second in the EU for the ease of paying taxes. That is a good record, which encourages foreign investment. It is not the poor record that the hon. Gentleman seeks to describe; he does down businesses and employees in the UK.

Nuclear Decommissioning

7. If he will make a statement on his Department’s use of the Treasury Green Book in calculating nuclear decommissioning costs. (95034)

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and British Energy calculate these costs. At all times, the Department follows HM Treasury guidelines.

That is an interesting answer. It contradicts what Mr. Hugo Robson, one of the Secretary of State’s own officials, told the Public Accounts Committee on 27 March. The DTI first claimed that it had followed the Green Book, then admitted that it had ignored it. The Secretary of State told me on 6 July that he would write to me explaining the problem. I do not know whether he has written to me and the letter has been lost in the post. Could he send me another copy?

I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 10 July and I will certainly send him another copy. As I understand it, the Department follows Treasury guidelines. As he knows, the purpose of the Green Book is slightly different. It looks at investment appraisal. The discounted rates that the Department has applied in relation to decommissioning costs are in line with the Treasury guidelines. I confirmed that when I wrote to him last July.

The Government have decided to include nuclear energy in the mix and have promised not to provide any taxpayers’ subsidies. It is important for the right level of provision to be made so that future taxpayers as well as current ones benefit. In view of what the Secretary of State has said, will he go back to the Department and ensure that it uses the 2.2 per cent.—not 3.5 per cent.—figure that is in line with the new Treasury guidance?

On the latter point, the Treasury rate to be applied has, as my hon. Friend knows, been reduced to 2.2 per cent., which is the figure being used. On the broader point, we are talking largely about decommissioning costs that have arisen from the fact that, throughout the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, no one sat down to work out how the decommissioning work was to be carried out and costed. That is now being done in respect of a new generation of nuclear power. I believe that it is important to maintain the mix, as my hon. Friend said. We set out the position in July and that remains our position.

Gas Industry

As confirmed by the recent energy review report, we remain committed to a market-based approach, operating within a regulatory framework determined by our policy objectives and overseen by an independent regulator.

The world gas price is only one element of the cost to a supply company. What action is the Minister taking, with the regulator, to ensure that a 30 per cent. increase in the price of gas does not lead to an opportunistic 30 per cent. rise in a customer’s bill?

The regulator Ofgem has recently made strong statements to the effect that it is keeping a very close eye on this. A bit of a time period elapses before wholesale prices can affect the consumer, but I agree that gas prices are coming down at the moment. We cannot predict what they will be in the future, but we back the regulator in adopting a strong regulatory approach to the problem.

Is not the real problem faced by the gas industry the failure of the market in mainland Europe to deliver gas to this country through the pipelines at times when prices here have suggested that it should? What progress is being made in the EU to ensure that all member states actually deliver what they signed up to on energy market liberalisation?

Steps are being taken to put principle into practice in respect of market liberalisation. The UK Government have led the charge on that and we have seen strong action from one of the commissioners, who initiated dawn raids on companies. Let us also remember that, with the opening of the Langeled pipeline, we will soon have about 20 per cent. of our future gas supply coming in from Norway, with liquefied natural gas coming in from Qatar to the tune of another 20 per cent. Continental Europe is important, but we are certainly not putting all our energy eggs in one basket, which would be the wrong thing to do. We are doing the right thing.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive

9. What recent progress his Department has made in implementing the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive. (95036)

The latest consultation exercise on the draft implementing regulations for this directive was concluded on Tuesday this week. Subject to a detailed analysis of the outcomes of that exercise, the directive should be transposed into UK legislation early in 2007, leading to full implementation on 1 July next year.

The Minister has caught me slightly unaware with that announcement, as no one was aware that that was about to happen. He has had six consultations, a review and a three-year delay. He now says that it is about to implemented, which is very welcome, but does he recognise that the delay has led to a huge mountain of discarded electronic goods—35 per cent. of them perfectly usable—piling up with nowhere to dispose of them? The UK and Malta are the only two countries that have not implemented so far. It is a very sorry state of affairs and I hope that the Minister will keep on the button and ensure that it actually happens.

It pains me to disagree with my own MP—I will not say whether I voted for him or not, as it is a secret ballot—but I have to say that he is a little out of date. Many people in the industries know where we are on this matter as we have carried through the consultation exercise and people have known about the appropriate time scale. Let us remember what this is about. In Britain alone, we have 1 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste every year and the amount goes up by about 4 per cent. a year. The European directive is about promoting producer responsibility. As part of a more sustainable economy, it is important that we recycle and reuse electrical and electronic waste.

The Minister knows that the national headquarters of the Furniture Reuse Network is in my constituency and, from the meeting we held with him earlier this year, he also knows how keen the network is to see the implementation of the directive. Can he tell the House how the Government plan to support the community sector to ensure that it has access to reusable waste electronic and electrical equipment from local authority and retailer sites?

I know of a number of good voluntary sector schemes, including one in Croydon, which I visited recently. Although we expect most of the waste to go to local authority sites—we are consulting on that—voluntary organisations are important in making sure that the products can be reused and sold on relatively inexpensively, often to low-income groups. Non-governmental organisations have a vital role.

Post Office

10. What assessment he has made of the procedures used by Post Office Ltd when consulting on its proposed changes to local post office services. (95037)

Under the Postal Services Act 2000, Postwatch was established to monitor changes to postal services and to ensure effective consumer representation. Postwatch has signed a code of practice with the Post Office, which provides a practical framework for consulting on proposed changes.

There is no doubt that Post Office Ltd has to make some difficult decisions and has some difficult challenges ahead, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, often, the way the Post Office goes about involving and consulting local communities leaves a lot to be desired? It was warned about that by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and others over the urban reinvention programme, but in my constituency, although the Post Office has met me in respect of the proposal to franchise out a Crown post office, it seems to be adopting a tick-box mentality when saying that the local community has been consulted rather than thinking creatively about the process. Will my right hon. Friend have a word with the Post Office about that?

Yes I will. As my hon. Friend says, over the next few months the Post Office will have to make some difficult decisions about the shape and size of the network, and it is important that when there is consultation it is carried out properly. It will always be the case that, if people do not like a proposal, they may feel that there has not been proper consultation—no matter what the outcome—but there are some elementary things that we need to get right, so I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend could let me know precisely what passed between him and the Post Office so that we try to avoid such mistakes in the future.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, when there are changes to local postal services, it is important that there is proper consultation? In my constituency, for example, the sorting office in Kirriemuir, which covers the glens of Angus, decided to stop making newspaper deliveries. That does not appear to be a national process, but there seems to have been a review and cuts are being made by stealth. Where there is a rural service that has an impact on rural businesses, is not it important that there is proper consultation before such actions are taken?

I am not familiar with that particular instance, although I know Kirriemuir and that it is important. If the hon. Gentleman would care to let me know what he thinks went wrong, I will certainly ask the Post Office to look into it.

Disabled Staff

11. What recent discussions he has had with employer representatives on attitudes towards employing disabled staff. (95039)

That is an extremely disappointing reply, given that the Government are putting the Welfare Reform Bill before the House and that one of the critical issues in the Bill is how to get more disabled people into work. Is the Minister’s hesitation in holding discussions with employers’ groups because the Government’s own record is so lamentable? Nineteen per cent. of the working age population is disabled, yet only 6.8 per cent. of DTI employees are disabled, so what urgent measures will the Minister take to restore the credibility of his Department on that important issue?

There is no embarrassment on the Government Benches. We passed the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and established an office for disability issues. The Act requires that all public bodies have due regard to promoting disability in all their functions and also that they produce a disability equality scheme by 4 December. The DTI is on target to meet that deadline; the scheme will provide an action plan for work to provide the framework in which we will meet our duty.

One of the largest categories of long-term illness and disability is made up of those suffering from mental ill health. When I talk to groups in my constituency, they report that, despite a transformation in social attitudes to mental ill health, there remain serious problems in terms of returning to the workplace and the difficulties that people encounter in having their applications treated fairly. Will the Minister say whether he agrees and, if he does, what he hopes that our Government will do to tackle that?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Mental ill health affects a sizeable proportion of the population. Almost every family—if not every family—has a member affected by it. It is an important aspect of our disability policy and I am sure that it will feature in all the plans that Departments make. It is a difficult area of work that requires a lot of attention to detail. I am sure that we will do that in due course.